Push-up Possibilities: Change up a Favorite for Big Gains

By Mike Clausen

All of my clients, and all who've done the Muscle Building 12-Week Workout, know that I am a firm believer in gaining strength and endurance through one simple exercise—the push-up. Push-ups are a full-body exercise that utilize many different muscle groups at once, including the muscles of the core. To do the most basic push-up, you push roughly two-thirds of your bodyweight, making them a great strength exercise. But the push-up is also versatile; once you've mastered the basic form, you can endlessly adapt it for new intensity and muscle focus. Read on to find out about a few of my favorite variations on the old standard.

Mastering the Basics

Push-ups are a great building block for any kind of workout. In fact, I often have my clients warm-up with push-ups to loosen up their shoulders and activate their core. From there, it is much easier to have your core "on" through the rest of your workout, whatever it may be.
The Push-up
Before you get creative with a push-up, you must make sure you have proper form in the basic version. Here are the essentials:
  1. Your hands should be under your shoulders.
  2. Keep your spine and head in alignment throughout your movement; don't let your head drop forward as you perform the exercise. But you also shouldn't be able to see yourself in the mirror—look down at the floor, with your neck straight.
  3. Draw in your navel (suck your belly-button to your spine) to keep your hips from sagging. But don't push your hips up in a pike position either; you want to be in a straight line from feet to head.
The Dowel Test
An easy way to double check that you are in proper alignment is to place a dowel on your back. The dowel should touch three points: the back of your head; your back in between your shoulder blades; and your sacrum. If you can do the push-up with the dowel always touching these three spots, then you have proper form and are effectively utilizing all the muscle groups needed for a push-up.

Take It Up A Notch

Listed below are some variations on the push-up. Some of these will be tougher than a normal push-up, so be prepared. Also, try to make each variation progressively harder by, for instance, doing them on one hand, or on one leg, or on a BOSU ball. As long as you keep the form correct, you can make them as tough as you want. Try these on your "push" days (chest, shoulders, even legs). Your upper body endurance will increase along with your gains in size and strength.
One-leg Push-up
Do a standard push-up, but keep one leg raised off the floor throughout each motion. If you are doing 20 push-ups total, then switch legs halfway through. The imbalance in your body will make you rely on your core to keep you steady.
Deeper Range of Motion Push-ups
To add intensity to a push-up, put your hands on dumbbells or yoga blocks. This will allow you to stretch further into the push-up as you move down, going past the point at which your chest would ordinarily touch the floor.
Hands on Stability Ball to Feet on Stability Ball Push-ups
With your hands on a stability ball and your body in plank position, perform a push-up, lowering your chest until it touches the ball, and then pressing yourself back up. As you lower yourself, your elbows should come out to the side as you press down, and your shoulder blades should come together. After you have finished 10 of the push-ups with your hands on the ball, reverse your position so that your toes are on the ball and your hands are on the floor. You will again be in the plank position, but with your head lower than your feet. Your shins and shoe laces will be on the ball, keeping your toes pointed so that you avoid perching on the ball with your toes. Again perform a push-up, lowering your chest to the floor and pressing back up as you keep the ball stable under your leg. Repeat for a total of 10 push-ups with your feet elevated.
Handstand Push-ups
This variation is great for your shoulders day. Begin in piked-up position on the floor, with your hips in the air, your palms flat on the floor a little more than shoulder-width apart in front of you, your legs as straight as possible, your feet hip-width apart with heels slightly off the ground, and your body supported by your hands and the balls of your feet. Slowly lower your body into a push-up, until the crown of your head completely touches the floor. Reverse the motion and push your upper body back up to the starting position. Your shoulders should do the majority of the work. Keep your neck in line with your spine throughout this entire movement. The more you are able to keep your hips up high over your shoulders throughout the movement, the easier it will be to progress to the more advanced variations of the exercise. To make this more difficult, place your feet on a bench or stability ball to increase the vertical alignment of your body.
UFC Push-ups
Begin in push-up position, with your feet wide. As you lower your upper body toward the floor, use your obliques to bring your right knee to your right elbow. Reverse the direction as you come back up. For the next push-up, bring your left knee to your left elbow. Again, reverse direction as you come back up. Alternate sides so that you do 10 reps on each side for the 20 push-ups.
Endurance Push-ups
Start on the Smith rack with the bar at belly button level. Your hands will be on the bar with your body extended in standard plank position. Begin your push-ups, lowering your chest to the bar while maintaining good form. Max out your push-ups. Next, drop the bar one notch. Max out again. Repeat this until the bar is at the lowest point. After you max out here, move to the floor and max out your push-ups on the floor.
Plyometric Clap Push-ups
From the starting position, slowly bend your arms and descend toward the floor. Keep your neck in line with your spine throughout the movement; do not jut your chin out towards the floor at the bottom of the movement. Stop when your elbows are at a 90-degree angle. From the bottom of the movement, develop explosive power through your chest and arms as you push hard off the floor, bringing your upper body into the air. As you pop up, engage your core to help lift you. In mid-air, quickly clap your hands together. Again use your center for control as you land in the starting position, making sure not to let your hips dip toward the floor. Follow the downward momentum of landing into your next push-up, focusing throughout on power and control.
Alternating T Push-ups
Begin in push-up position and lower yourself to the floor. As you press up from the floor, rock up onto your left hand and bring your right hand off the floor. Your feet should turn so that you are supported on the outside of your left foot and inside of your right foot. Bring your right hand up above your head so that your body is in a T position. Your body should stay in a straight line from your feet to your armpit. As soon as you achieve the T position, reverse direction and bring your right hand back to the floor, go right down into your next push-up, and then go back up into the T position on your other side with your left hand up in the air.
About Mike Clausen: Clausen is the founder and co-owner of DIAKADI Body training gym, voted best personal training gym in San Francisco by CitySearch in 2006. He has been actively involved in sports and weightlifting since high school, and continues to use that knowledge when training his clients. Clausen is both A.C.E. and N.A.S.M. certified and has been training clients professionally for six years. He enjoys making his clients stronger, both physically and mentally, giving them the tools to create an efficient body and to do things they thought were not possible.